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Talk26-Aug-2014: The Convention Plague

No, I am saying the two science fiction conventions I went to were bad (that would be the Eurocon in Kiev from last year). I just missed out most of Shamrokon in Ireland because I contracted a plague in Loncon3 (the Worldcon) and spent much of the Irish convention in the hotel room trying to breathe. I did attend a panel on using computer games to tell stories and thanks to modern medicine I think it went pretty well. But flying back to Finland with head full of phlegm and a fever of 39 degrees is not recommended.

Quite a few cool things happened in the space of the last 10 days, though. First of all, Hannu Rajaniemi of Quantum Thief fame got his physical copy of Stalker RPG and really liked it. He also wrote a very detailed, almost publishing-editor level review of my novel and while he liked that as well, he gave me quite a few pointers I hope my actual publishing editor would have thought of. I don't agree with all the suggested changes but then again Hannu is a superstar of contemporary science fiction and I am an overweight neckbeard who dreams of being a pulp fiction author; i.e. writing what young poorly educated men used to buy from shady kiosks before porn magazines were allowed.But he was entertained nevertheless and I have no higher goals than that. I hope you will be too, when The Hollow Pilgrim finally comes out.

By the way, I found Quantum Thief a little difficult to get into and Fractal Prince almost impenetrable, albeit extremely well written. But the conclusion of Hannu's trilogy, The Causal Angel, is a masterpiece. If that's him hitting his stride as a big-time author, he just shot up to the top of my list. I also really enjoyed the short story he read to the public in Finncon. Yes, I am a fanboy. But I was that already before I learned that he was a fan of my roleplaying games and liked my funny little Stalker novel.

As for the conventions themselves, I have a few gripes. Worldcon was obviously massive but it suffers from the same problem as Shamrokon does: over-dependence on panels. Virtually every piece of programme in Shamrokon was a panel. That's 3-5 people having a short chat and then responding to questions from the audience. There were virtually no presentations, readings or kaffee klatches and none of the panels I saw used any visual aids. I have to say that I much prefer the Finncon/Ropecon/Eurocon 2012 (Croatia) focus on presentations and solo pieces. You can cover your stuff in depth, you can handle more questions since not everybody has to answer, visual aids fit right in and so on. You can still have panels mixed in, though and all in all, this year's Finncon offered a wealth and variety of programming that these two frontline conventions of the genre could only dream of.

My other gripe is about opportunities for gaming. Worldcon actually had a games tent for running roleplaying games and John Dodd of UK Games Expo actually convinced me to run a session of Stalker RPG there. I wasn't prepared but got my act together and had a great time. Now, Shamrokon had nothing like that. Even in the programme topics, games barely existed and the RPG content was limited to one panel about LARPs. No game room, no system in place to run games, no real presence of the roleplayer sub-culture, which I thought was alive and well in Ireland.

But in short, Worldcon is a massive affair and there I can see why Helsinki 2017 plans to hold it in Messukeskus. Eurocons are smaller, much like Finncons but with more English programme tracks and high-ranking guests of honor. I've mostly enjoyed the but last year the Kiev Eurocon was definitely the low point of my otherwise very enjoyable trip. Next year, it is held in St. Petersburg and yeah... there are issues with attending that one at the moment. None of them are the organizers' fault but still... The 2016 Eurocon will be held in Barcelona and I am definitely attending that one. As for Worldcons, they will go back to the US for a couple of years. The 2015 Worldcon is held in Spokane, which is backwater even by Washington state standards. And of all the congregations of idiots in the world, the 2016 vote had to land it on Kansas City. I hope Helsinki wins the vote for 2017 next year but it is up against stiff competition from Washington DC.

I am back in Finland now. I have five days to get well and then I am off to Istanbul, officially for the Internet Governance Forum but mostly for being tourist and chasing those wonderful "Personal Conan Moments". I had one standing before the Golden Gates of Kiev. Now I hope some part of Old Constantinople can give me the same rush. And yes, I've been writing stuff for Miekkamies while out of the country. I briefly toyed with an alternate and more pseudo-historical setting but eventually dropped it in the favor Arleon. I am already pissed off at Magus saying back in 1994 that Miekkamies reminded him of Warhammer. I am not going to give him another excuse for doing that, regardless of the potential of a pseudo-historical Europe. I have also been experimenting with alternate rule systems and now think there is perhaps a compromise between the Hipster system described in my previous blog entry and something normal people would actually play...     

Talk12-Aug-2014: Hipster Miekkamies

Jukka "NiTessine" Särkijärvi put it best:

You can take the man out of the Zone.
But you cannot take the Zone out of the man.

Stalker RPG is by far the best roleplaying game I have written. And personally, I consider it to be the best RPG anybody has ever written. Yes, any perceived reality is ultimately subjective and while not many would agree with me on that assessment, every review of Stalker RPG I have heard of agrees it is a fucking brilliant, if perhaps a slightly quirky, game. As I write the alpha rules system for Miekkamies, it is becoming increasingly clear that I can't walk away from Stalker RPG anymore. Probably never will. For example, the character creation is pure genius and I am constantly trying to emulate it in other settings and genres because it is just so freaking awesome. The FLOW rules work perfectly 80% of the time. Running action scenes sometimes make me wish I had introduced some dice into the system. Both players and myself make great initial strategies and describe their initial moves well but if the scenes draw out over several combat rounds, you need to be Shakespeare, or use more time than is practical in a tabletop RPG to come up with new plans and matching descriptions all the time.

On the other hand, that 20% also kind of wipes the floor with any system I've read, used or even heard about. When I realized that I don't actually need detailed weapon stats for Stalker RPG, I was... flying, without knowing if I was freefalling down into the abyss or floating aloft on wings on inspiration. Instead, how good is your weapon for the circumstances? Better than the enemy's? Subject to some special hindrances? You could kill with any weapon but having the right tool for the job just made it easier and bigger certainly wasn't better. So, no weapon stats. No initiative bonuses. No damage values (which are a legacy system inherited from miniature game balancing). No min-maxing with a thousand different 9mm pistols and arguments over whether Beretta or SIG is superior. And once you were out of Fitness, the damage system imposed the effects of a solid hit from that kind of weapon. A fist punches you out. A .50 Barret punches right through you and you better hope there is hospital-level treatment or medical xenotechnology around. It had nothing to do with a simulation of a real firefight but it worked beautifully.

Miekkamies is not a FLOW game and uses a derivative of the Praedor rules. However, I am chasing the same high I got from Stalker RPG combat at its best. Combat is reduced to conflict rolls and if you have the best weapon for your circumstances and goals, you have an edge of one die. If you also manage to lure the enemy into terrain unfit for his weapon, the enemy gets a disadvantage of one die.

Imagine this: Two combatants charge each other in a thick crowd. One is armed with a dagger. The other is wielding a rapier. At first, the panicking bystanders block the long blade's arc of movement and even if he is not worried by collateral damage, the swordsman can't afford to get his blade stuck between the butt cheeks of some unfortunate onlooker. During this initial round the knifeman makes a normal combat roll (or perhaps even at -1D, if he can initiate his charge from within an arm's length since dagger is a deadly weapon in cramped spaces and surprise attacks). The swordsman still intends to run the knifeman through but with +1D to his combat roll he is lucky if he can keep the dagger off his skin. They score equal successes, so for the 10 seconds or so they circle, dodge, weave, exchange blows and so on, while spectators scramble to get out of the way.

The next round, the crowds have cleared. At three times the length of the dagger, the rapier now has the edge, or rather, the dagger is at a disadvantage. The swordsman can now attack normally but if the knifeman's intentions in this round still involve the dagger, he will have +1D penalty to his combat roll. He might be better off figuring out something that would neutralize the sword instead. Retreat into a hastily abandoned market stall while taunting the swordsman to follow him, then pounce on him? It's a long description but then, 10 seconds of combat is a long time and antagonists in Baroque Fantasy are sensitive to witty insults.

I am no longer interested in seeing mathematical prediction models of differently armed combatants playing out, ála Praedor. I am interested in players being incentivized to come up with creative tactics and colorful solutions, as well as to recognize and respond to traps set before them by the enemy. If this means abstracting the combat system to simple conflict rolls and glossing over the differences between various types of thin-bladed dueling swords found in Arleon, so be it!

But... does this mean losing the location-based damage system with deep wounds? Sadly, yes. Location-based damage tracking is a major contributor in making Praedor combat as deadly as it is. For Pulp Fantasy, it is genre-realistic. For Baroque Fantasy, it is anything but. You are supposed to enjoy combat, often both as a player and a character (just read Three Musketeers; by modern standards the early 17th century Paris is a hub for psychopaths). As a result, combat damage needs a genre-friendly build-up to a serious wound that effectively ends the combat for the recipient. Or leaves him at such an enormous disadvantage that it is actually honorable to surrender. Now, one of the lessons of Praedor was that players love to roll damage dice. Actually, I've never seen dice-based superstitions emerge and become entrenched that fast before.

So, how to combine these things into a dice pool complete with explosive dice? I'll tell you what I am going to try with my test players. This is actually a variation of a theme I read about from an RPG advert in the early nineties. I forget which game it was, which is a pity because I remember the advert being damn intriguing. Anyway, winning the combat roll with the intent to do bodily harm inflicts the difference in Degrees as Wounds. These wounds represent anything from actual wounds to a loss of self-confidence and bouts of fear and fatigue. They are also casually healed. While a single attack can only inflict 1-3 Wounds, watch out! Here comes the Damage Roll!

Roll 1D for every Wound taken so far (the ones inflicted now included), with explosive dice (re-roll any dice that score "6", for a potentially infinite result). Subtract -1D or -2D if there is armor or otherwise believable protection against the latest damange (a soaked blanket against a fire, padding for falls, thick furs against cold etc.). At least on paper, this gives armor the diminished effect I was looking for. It is useful enough for soldiers to want to wear it (e.g. Gustavus Adolphus wore a moose-leather cuirass into the Battle of Lützen, even if he was often portrayed dressed in metal armor). If the total is less than your Body, no problem! Flesh wounds, superficial cuts, bashes with the hilt of the sword, etc. But if the total exceeds Body, the result is a Deep Wound, a Critical Wound, a Lethal Wound or a Mortal Blow. Most NPCs will try to escape battle or surrender after taking a Deep Wound. Should the character survive a Critical Wound or worse, he may receive permanent injuries like missing limbs, eyes and so on.

It takes, on average, three Wounds to deliver a Deep Wound to an ordinary person, and six or seven to deliver a Mortal Blow. Since characters have superior stats, will probably find a way to cheat with the armor and have some control over their fate via the Swashbuckling Die (which is a topic for another day), they are likely to be even tougher. And in any case a Deep Wound is not necessarily Game Over if you're good enough. Thus Miekkamies combat will be far less deadlier than Praedor combat. Hopefully, it will also be more colorful, flamboyant and creative. A voice in in my head laments that these choices and abstractions will be unpopular among the roleplaying masses, and that saleswise I should embrace Praedor-style attention to detail with well-defined rules. But those people have Praedor already and I hope that by next Ropecon they will also have some supplemental material to mull over. With or without the comic album.

But I digress. Last Ropecon, and in particular when watching Myrrys deliver its thoroughly botched company launch talk, I felt that my mass market days were done. If it's well-organized, an outfit of that size could support 2-3 franchises with rulebooks, regular supplemental material, updates, event support (scenario-writing competitions), licensed fiction and the works. I can't do that. I am just too unreliable, too much of an artist who is at the mercy of his whims and inspirations and detests being restricted to doing things somebody else has to like (which is what 99% of my day job is all about and there is nothing wrong with that but you can probably see the reason behind my roleplaying game design preferences...). This is also the reason why I prefer to work alone and not to use crowd funding. I am old pretentious roleplaying hipster, like 4chan once argued I was. I can't draw, though. So... if any artists out there would like to take a crack at Miekkamies, drop me a line. This time there are no restrictions on the use of colors :)

Talk06-Aug-2014: It is cold in Skyrim

The heatwave has continued for more than month and it's actually therapeutic to go back into the snowbanks of Skyrim. Yes, I've lapsed and put in more than 50 hours onto my latest character, Nejah. An Imperial hunter, ranger and assassin on some magical capability, she goes down the easiest route regarding character advancement. What is different this time is that I am playing with full survival mods. Food, sleep, drink, cold, the works. I also had enemy mods but there were... problems. I have also managed to do away with the need to learn Smithing, which as a side effect resolved the issue of having too much gold, at least for now.


So, here she is. Nejah, dressed light, stealthy and warm, carrying a fur backpack and wearing a fur cloak to hold off the cold. While Skyrim doesn't have a needs system by default, it has a surprisingly sophisticated food crafting system, complete with multiple ingredients, incentives for hunting and complex recipes. That, and the fact that the areas you move about in early in the game have kitchens, suggests to me that the game originally had included hunger and thirst, much like the Hardcore Mode in Fallout: New Vegas does. Apparently it was dropped at some point since areas designed later in the process no longer have cooking pots or functional kitchens. This is nothing modders couldn't fix but much like Nevada Wasteland, the land of Skyrim is too densely populated for starvation to really become an issue. And fixing that, unfortunately, remains beyond the skill of modders.

I am going easy on the mods this time and getting everything from Steam Workshop if I can. Skyrim can be unstable even on a good day, so I've skipped heavy graphics and content mods, and sticking instead to small things I know it can handle and hope that will breathe new life to the default adventure. The small mods kind of piled up but the actual changes are minute. At the core of the new gameplay experience is the survival mod package:

Frostfall - I reduced the rate of hypothermia since I am not playing a Nord. And without heavy Frost Resistance the default freezing rate is ridiculous.

iNeed - this is a simple hunger, thirst and sleep mod. I have increased the benefits from food and drink a little but kept the attrition rate as it is. You roughly need three meals and drinks per day (waterskins galore) and it is enough to make you do a spot of hunting on occasion to get your hands on some venison. Besides, hot stews help against the cold.

Cloaks of Skyrim - supplements Frostfall perfectly.

Calleb96's Hunting Improvement Mod - since I am going after all that venison, I might as well try the hunting mods :)

Dovahkin Relaxes Too - for all your immersive idle time animation needs.

More Cooking Pots - for obvious reasons.

Wet and Cold - better handling of rain and cold visuals on the character

Survival isn't everything. I was annoyed at the need for my slender assassin to become a burly blacksmith just to make sensible use of her equipment. I went looking for alternatives and found this:

Loot and Degradation - this mod enables the NPC blacksmiths to improve your goods, in return for a hefty sum of gold. Different blacksmiths have different and improving skill levels with some specialties. Eorlund in Whiterun is obviously the best smith out there but they all improve through work and time. The best of all is that they can improve weapons and armors from outside the regular crafting system, so I am now wearing a legendary wolf's head helmet of a Stormcloak commander. Technically, the mod also adds weapon and armor degradation through use but in practice this has been too slow and rare to become an issue. Tempering of weapons and armors costs and later in the game it will cost a lot. Thousands of gold. But it has relieved me from the need to spend perk points on Smithing and the game always needed a deep and regular gold sink. :)

The rest of the mods are small visual and content upgrades:

The Daedric Menace - adventure
Stones of Barenziah Quest Markers - yes, I can't be arsed!
Static Mesh Improvement Mod 1-6 - this is the Steam Workshop version
Wealthy Merchants - needed for sanity if you're not fast traveling
Less Intrusive Hud II - does this really work?
The Dark Brotherhood Resurrection - adventure
Wulf Animal Pack - nicer looking animals
Stronger Daedric Artifacts - the default artifacts are a disgrace
Voidcraft Housecarls - if you really like your housecarls
Voidcraft Optic Nature Pack - I can't live without this one
Ruins Clutter Improved - cavern beautification project
Realistic Water Two - The essential water graphics mod
Dense Vegation - good eyecandy but tends to hide bodies
Dwemertech - adventure
Calleb96's Horses Improvement Mod - because the original horses are shit
Quest: Sea of Ghosts - adventure
Reduced Distance NPC Greetings - no more arrow jokes
Crimson Tide - Blood 2.2.  - for pulp fantasy lovers
When Vampires Attack - civilians run for cover, at last
The Dance of Death - beautiful and varied kill moves, and more often
Immersive Patrols - real civil war, real battles and sometimes real trouble
SkyUI - required by many other mods. Don't forget SKSE either.
Amazing Follower Tweaks - fixes the idiot followes once and for all
Chopping block/Wood fires Fix - fixes missing textures
Followes can Relax - immersive eyecandy
Better Dynamic Snow - eyecandy
Realistic Ragdolls and Force - improved physics
HD Plants + Herbs - they now look the part too
Wet and Cold Ashes - Dragonborn supplement to Wet and Cold
Rainbows - why not?
Splash of Rain - ditto, although Frostfall makes you hate rainy days.

I originally had also Enemy AI Overhaul - Revenge of the Enemies, which makes enemies stronger, fixes some of the AI issues and makes bosses feel like, well, bosses. I took it out when the Draugr boss in Bleakfalls Barrow (like, the second dungeon in the whole game) one-shotted my level 2 character halfway across the whole dungeon with some kind of damage-inflicting shout. Challenge is fine but hitting a stone wall right at the start of the game is not. Now that I am at level 38 and most enemies feel too weak, I am planning to put it back. Let's see what happens.

But overall, thanks to survival and loot degradation, Skyrim has reinvented itself again for me. It's not perfect, but you can see it from here.

Talk04-Aug-2014: Ten Kilos (145.3)

Reporter: Welcome to our health-themed broadcast from the tropical paradise that is Myyrmäki. Today, we are going to be interviewing the health and fitness guru Ville "Burger" Vuorela, who has just lost ten kilos in three weeks. In this fitness- and body image -obsessed world this is a major feat. So how did you do it, Mr. Vuorela?

Ville Vuorela: In a nutshell, The Atkins Diet, or "Very Low Carbohydrate Diet". But let's put things into perspective. I am a huge guy, so any change in eating habits was going to have an effect and the first 3-4 kilos were fluids anyway. It'd come right back if I went on a sugar binge, so the real loss rate has been about two kilos per week.

Reporter: That is still remarkable. But with such abundance of diets available and Atkins not being fashionable anymore, why did you go for that one?

Ville Vuorela: Two things; I've done it before so I know it works and it is quick enough to keep me motivated.

Reporter: You've done it before? How did that go?

Ville Vuorela: I did it in 2003/2004 for eight months and also went hardcore on gym excercise and occasional fasting days. It worked alright, I lost 40 kilos in 8 months and got under 100 for the first time since the Army. It also took me 8 years to gain them back, so while some might call that yo-yo dieting, I call it an acceptable exchange ratio.

Reporter: Can we expect to see you lose 40 kilos this time around?

Ville Vuorela: I am not sure. Last time hunger and possibly hormonal changes during fasting altered my personality, making me swing wildly between aggression and depression. This time around I am taking it much easier, so the rate of loss will eventually be much slower but it will be mentally easier for both myself and my spouse. She prefers me as my grumpy old self. The 100 kilo-limit remains a magical finish line and an easy reference point. My ideal weight would be something like 70-80 but with this much baggage even getting below 100 is what dreams are made of.

Reporter: Without carbs, I suppose you will be eating mostly meat then? Getting your energy from fats and proteins.

Ville Vuorela: I am a meat-eater but never underestimate the need for veggies. When Atkins was first publicized in Finland, the idiot press went crazy about it being a barbecue diet for pure carnivores or something. No, eating isn't just about energy. You need veggies for vitamins and fiber and on Atkins you have to pay close attention to get enough of them. If you don't, you'll get constipated first and sick afterwards. Unless you go full Eskimo with black cold-fermented meat but I am not subjecting my palate or my stomach to that.

Reporter: Well, you are well known for having freezers stuffed with organic meats but what veggies can you eat then? The carb limits are quite strict, are they not?

Ville Vuorela: I try to keep my daily carb intake under 20 grams but I won't fuss about it as long as it stays under 50. With that kind of limit you can eat most of the green veggies out there and some of the roots. I am also eating tomatoes and snack-carrots are my candy. I have also made side dishes out of certain types of salads, eggs in various forms and baked eggplant. I really like baked eggplant. It is the closest thing to potato mash but with one fifth of the carbs. My other favorites are broccoli and then those frozen Wok vegetable mixes you can buy from stores and cook with oil. Potatoes aren't that dangerous either, actually. With just 16 grams of carbs per 100 grams, you can enjoy a potato dish or two as long as you don't do it every day. And we are talking about whole potatoes here: chips are off the list.

Reporter: But you are also a well-known sweet-tooth. How do you keep yourself from becoming insane?

Ville Vuorela: Every now and then I reward myself with a dessert I make from whipped cream, artificial sweeteners and powdered coffee. I make a small batch of sweet whipped cream, sprinkle the coffee granules on top of it and leave it in the fridge for a while. The coffee melts into a bitter dark layer on top of the cream and it is yummy. You can get the same effect with dark cocoa but coffee has more bite to it. At other times, if I am hit by cravings, snack carrots are usually my salvation.

Reporter: Considering how much you used to eat out before this diet it seems like quite a radical change. No doughnuts? No ice cream? No Danish?

Ville Vuorela: There is a trick to it and it seems to work on a comfort eater like myself. Eat big! This talk of small meals many times a day is hogwash. Protein- and fat-based foods keep you full for a long time and without the sugar spike from carbs you don't even get that sensation of sleepiness afterwards. I try to eat a hearty meal before I set out to go or do something. The sensation of fulness keeps craving away and I won't be tempted to impulse buy the wrong things. With these foods, I only need one or two meals a day anyway. Or like, one meal and a few branches of Chinese cabbage on a good day.  

Reporter: So, Atkins is a sort of a miracle diet, after all? Why hasn't the entire developed world been put on it?

Ville Vuorela: There is nothing magical about it. The rules for weight loss are the same for everybody: Eat less calories than you consume. Anything any diet can do is to facilitate that. In my case, a 150-kilo lard ball needs over 3000 kcal a day just to keep breathing. Now, raw beef averages 153 kcal per 100 grams, or 1530 kcal per kilo. Doing the math, I would need two kilos of beef a day! Since I have cut off the carbs, the remaining veggies have hardly any energy at all (eggplant 22 kcal/100g, carrot  33 kcal/100g) and I'd have to be a Siberian tiger to gnaw through even a kilo of meat a day. Still, the required energy has to come from somewhere and once my liver ran out of sugar, the only option was to burn fat. That's called ketosis and it is the end goal of any ketogenic diet.

Reporter: You already said it feels easier this time around. Are there any side effects at all?

Ville Vuorela: Well, yes. Waking up is a long and drawn-out process involving multiple stages and degrees of self-awareness. Sometimes your body tries to shut down and you get cold feet or other extremities. Some exercise, like walking, is paramount to keeping your metabolism active. And when you finally do get hungry, you are ravenous and it can alter your mood pretty drastically. Finally, the absence of sugar sensitizes you to sweet flavors, so things may start tasting different than before. I have also been told that in ketosis you should occasionally be able to taste the sweetness of ketones in your mouth but I have never managed to do that. 

Reporter: Well, congratulations on what you have achieved already. I can see that you had to tighten your belt.

Ville Vuorela: Just by one notch but thank you. I managed to hold on to my diet through Ropecon and Assembly, which is great and this current weight loss was enough to fix some of the problems I had with my legs. But I am also about to head into the British Isles for two weeks soon and to Turkey soon after that. There might be some damage control ahead once I get back. 

Reporter: And this concludes our interview with Ville Vuorela, the renowned expert on healthy foods and healthy living! Good night and eat well!

In other news, Miekkamies combat system is taking shape. I have received suggestions on rule changes and tweaks based on Praedor but really, the differences go way, way deeper than that. Miekkamies combat is far less lethal, does away with the action/hand parity and includes both abstractions and gimmicks to produce genre-believable results. And anyone who thinks any of this has anything to do with real fencing maneuvers can go stick his head in a cement mixer. There are games out there already trying to recreate real combat. This is a game trying to recreate the freedom, speed and lunacy of cinematic swashbuckling with its stupidly creative combat scenes. Yes, I am trying to do a combat system where the infamous Wheel Fight of Pirates of the Caribbean 2 is not only possible, but inevitable. 

Talk02-Aug-2014: Things Underway

Assembly 2014 is underway and this time it is in Messukeskus (Helsinki Exhibition Center) and my god, that is a soul-crushing place. The setup is much better than it was in Assembly Winter. Also, the Esport arrangements kick serious ass but I cringe when thinking that I am technically supporting hosting Worldcon 2017 in this place. But apart from location, Assembly is doing well. The seminar program is perhaps a bit lackluster this year but the Esport emphasis balances that out. And the Virtual Reality stuff presented today wasn't half-bad. Lots of walking, though. The floors are even so my knees aren't busted but it takes forever to get from the Seminar stands to the Starcraft 2 tournament stands. And it is a pity I have absolutely no need for hardware. That Corsair gaming keyboard in Jimms looks pretty damn cool.

Quietly, on the background, I've been working on the rules system and character creation of Miekkamies. I managed to crack some of the nuts I was facing, especially on the latter part, but we are not out of the woods yet. Still, I can already tell it uses a derivation of the Praedor system while taking lessons from Stalker and Rovers. The characters are the sons and daughters of impoverished and ostracized Imperial nobility, made obsolete by the collapse of the Delorian Empire and also intently distrusted by the new royal families. They are still nobles or heirs to nobles, though, so they retain privileges like the right to bear arms in public (hence "Miekkamies), freedom of travel within the Imperial borders and a measure of authority within the law. Nevertheless, the collapse of the Empire has left them with little more than their names and exalted family histories. They must either make their own fortune in the new era, or they will vanish along with the Empire that made them. Think of d'Artagnan leaving for Paris. You'll get the picture.

The player determines six attribute values and if he chooses his character to be a witch, he can sacrifice points from those attributes to a seventh attribute called Witchcraft. Arcane knowledge and power corrupts both body and soul, so these lost points reflect physical and mental changes. They also help to explain why old witches in fairy tales are such horrible hags; their players were minmaxers and sacrificed their Charisma. Next, choosing your people yields a small attribute bonus and determines what skills you already know at their starting value. Although most Imperial subjects were Delorians, the empire was multicultural and included significant minorities of Tynes, Relgs, Lavonians and even Sayarids and Zhangs who had come to Arleon from across the seas. Of these, only Tynes have their own Successor Kingdom. All other Successor Kingdoms are in Delorian hands. Many of the nobles from these minorities were Imperial nobility, meaning that they swore fealty to the Emperor rather than the dukes and archdukes from which the Successor Kingdoms sprung up. Hence the political conflict.

In addition to the four background skills, you get to choose six more skills determined by the life, actions and fate of your character. All these skills are learned at their starting value and you can then distribute 30 more points between them, although no skill may be higher than 15 for new characters. There are fewer skills in Miekkamies than there were in Praedor. Many things are are now resolved rolling against the attribute value, especially on tasks related to Agility or Charisma. Skills are restricted to specialist knowledge where training and experience has larger impact. Drawing on Rovers, starting with a sufficiently high skill value require you to choose a Perk and a Flaw, preferably reflecting the circumstances in which that skill was learned, but there are also some attributed to birth or blind luck.

Finally, you get to create your noble bloodline. Besides a name and a coat of arms, you get to roll the three things the family is famous for, worth pools of 3, 2 and 1 bonus dice, respectively. You can spend these dice in topical task rolls, rolling more dice and then choosing the correct number of best-scoring dice as your result. The used bloodline dice are returned after each session and more dice can be gained if you are successful in restoring parts of your family's prestige and glory. Even entirely new achievements can be added to the bloodline, if your character becomes the widely renowned hero legends and chronicles will refer to. The exact system is still up in the air but I want bloodline dice pools to be upgradable variables.

After all the characters are created, we create the company, the fellowship, AKA "the party". Stealing ideas out of One Ring, it'll have fate dice of its own, increasing with every adventure. Thus, joining a famous and well-established party of adventurers gives even a new blood an access to the fabled luck of heroes. The system is still a little fuzzy but I am trying to give adventurer groups identity, reputation and self-recognition, including enemies and weaknesses on the group level. It may end up being a list of allies, enemies and shared resources with a dice pool to match but still, I should have had something like that in Praedor already. Details, details...

The next real challenge is the combat system, because the genre realism of Baroque Fantasy is different from Pulp Fantasy. The very flavor of combat is different, the weapons are different, the firearms are reasonably reliable and armor is rarely worn outside dedicated military expeditions. Swashbuckling, from creative insults to boosting attacks with acrobatic moves is to be encouraged. Now, you are all well aware what happens in Praedor if you frequently engage in battle without armor or a shield. In Miekkamies, this simply won't fly and the whole system unravels with that realization. Even if many of the basic mechanics of Praedor are applicable in Miekkamies, the combat is not. Hmm...  

Talk27-Jul-2014: Ropecon Post-Mortem

At the time of writing the Ropecon is winding down towards the closing ceremonies. I am long gone, because I hate that part of any convention. If I enjoy myself, watching the event lie down and die takes part of me with it. So we took off for Grilli Toro instead. Yum Yum. Programme scheduling issues aside (you fucking muppets!) this was an excellent Ropecon for me, with just the right blend of good, bad and comedic.

Friday kicked off very well indeed. The Gamemaster School was bloody excellent! If they cover topics I have special interest in in the future, I'll be there like mold on a carpet. It was great to draw comparisons with Verivartio, my Praedor-campaign where the group has a very definite (and fortunately fully capable) leader. Judging by the slides, the leader has been doing most things right and we even got the seating arranged properly, even if that was largely by a mix of tradition and chance. Next, the Screwy Rulers of History was so packed I skipped it. It was later repeated in the Auditorium but unfortunately I had something else on top of that.

Then we get to the Bad and Comedic. Myrrys is a new Finnish RPG developer and publisher born out of Ironspine and Myrrysmiehet. Yes, they merged and held the worst company reveal in the history of games business. The less is said about it the better, so I'll summarize it like this: never before have five people grouped together looked so much smaller than any one of them standing alone. Guys, get it together, choose your speakers according to talent and do your fucking homework on what you are going to present. And if you don't have the time and opportunity to do it properly, don't.
My saturday kicked off with the RPG release clusterfuck (thanks, Programme Team!). Age of Tempest presentation went off without a hitch but Mike, of course, is an old hand at this. No real news, other than videogame fans being ignorant assholes about the naming collision with Blizzard's Heroes Of The Storm. But gamers being assholes is not real news anymore. Astraterra presentation was of guaranteed Miska-quality and all in all, I'd say Miska was the star this year. He won Ropecon with Astraterra and quite deservedly so. The game is gorgeous and screw anyone who claims otherwise. I have yet to play it but I am interested in trying it out. If that simple but strong-looking game system works as well, I might consider adapting it for Myrskyn Sankarit as well, should I ever have to run games for children. It needs more player progression options but hell, house rules is what we game designers are here for.

Finally, Mike's "what's new with Myrskyn Sankarit" presentation also featured the adventure module I wrote for him. I've never really used adventure modules myself and considered them a waste of money and time. But Hornankattila looked so good it made me think about doing something similar for Praedor, especially now that the world supplement is being delayed. What do you think? Would you have use for long adventures for Praedor, sprinkled with supplemental rules? Would anyone buy such a thin booklet it if read "Praedor" on the cover? Does anyone even play Praedor anymore? Let me know what you think. Space Warfare by Antti Eronen was great stuff, some of which I knew and some of which I didn't. As it should be. I really ought to catch up on my reading and add his latest onto the list.

Gamemaster School, second course. 90 minutes might be a tad too long but there were lots of good stuff. And I closed the Saturday by meeting my colleagues in Keltsu, where I was shown a picture of the elusive Finnish RPG authoring guru "Ville Pohjola" (an inside joke from the Myrrys meeting that is in danger of becoming a meme).

Then, Sope. I like the guy, he sort of knows his stuff as an RPG author but Christ on the Bicycle about those presentations! I am not going to comment on content because the real problem is in presentation skills. And now we are going to fix that once and for all!

  • Stand up! If you sit behind the desk looking like you don't care, why should anyone else care either? Stand up, move about a little, point to things on the big screen, use your body language for emphasis and in general, improve your unspoken communication beyond the level of a dead fish!
  • Voice is very important. This kind of droning monotone put me to sleep already in the University Phonetics Lectures of the 90s and those things were compulsory. This results partly from sitting down. Stand up, use your belly for breathing so that your voice comes from deep within the bowels and has the acoustic clarity of singing. You may also want to practice varying your tone to convey emotion or emphasis as needed. Also, doing some warm-up facial gestures and sounds before you are tasked with talking for an hour works wonders on the clarity of pronunciation and how the voice resonates within the cranial cavities. You are speaking with a set of muscles. They can be flexed and warmed up beforehand, like everything else.
  • Slides are the second half of your show. I know the current trend is for clarity but there is such as a thing as excess. If they look like fucking government forms, you get the same effect on the viewers. Thankfully the Robin Hood presentation slides had a spot of color here and there. I am not saying you have to have as much as color in your slides as I do (I do that in excess) but I think Antti Eronen did an excellent job with his: Dark background color, white (or very light grey) text color and yellow emphasis color for headlines and bullet list symbols. Mostly all text, with an occasional full-sized picture.
  • Headaches are a fact of life and we are not always feeling up to it when tasked with doing a presentation. However, there is also a saying that "the show must go on". Grit your teeth, suck it up, drink fluids, take pills, meditate, hit your hand to shift the focus of pain or whatever. Ropecon presentations are a show and you are the star. That's what the audience is there for and even if you are about to die with your boots on, do it with a smile and an interesting anecdote on your lips. 

I wasn't all that sure if getting up early to make it into the Games for Kids panel on Sunday morning was going to be worth it but hell yeah! Thank you Mike, Miska and Luke for an absolutely kick-ass panel and talks on designing, marketing and whatever of roleplaying games for children. And I am very glad to see Astraterra make new fans. I usually rate panels below presentations but this was really, really good.

All in all, this was one of the best Ropecons I've attended. Despite their best efforts, even the Programme Team couldn't spoil it. Next year,  Dipoli is getting renovated so the timing and venue of Ropecon 2015 are up in the air. It is possible that this was the last Dipoli-Con and I fear that the location will be sorely missed next year.  

My Extra Special Thanks go to Eero Tuovinen for gifting me with Korpimuseo Wildwood Tales, a book on the wonders and magic of Northern Kainuu, which was very topical because I just got back from there. Despite nearly dying out in the wilderness, I did witness the awesome beauty of those wilds. One day, if my diet succeeds, I'll go there again and maybe this time I can focus on enjoying my surroundings rather than just keeping my heart beating. It is a thick book and a great gift. I must think of something in return.

Speaking of howling wilderness, I finally bought One Ring RPG. So far, I like what I see and the emphasis on travel and wilderness exploration is something I've never focused on before. It is a gorgeous-looking game and once Verivartio campaign is in the bag (I like joking about it but it will happen eventually), I might give this one a spin or steal the heck out of it for some Great Southern Woods -themed Praedor supplement. My next Praedor novel is set in the north but it is becoming clear to me that I love the south more as a region.    


Let's see... *goes to the scales* ...the official reading for this week is 147.3 kilos. It's a lot, of course. Morbidly obese. But last week I weighed in at 149.7, so I've shed 2.4 kilos in a week without any great pains or difficulty. And before last week, I weighed in too much for the scales to measure. Don't let anyone ever tell you that Atkins/Low-Carb Diet doesn't work. I even managed to hold on to it despite the temptations of Ropecon food stalls and Keltsu! Now, if I can only survive Assembly...

Talk24-Jul-2014: New Release!

I thought I had no new releases coming out on this Ropecon but Mike kindly reminded me that I do! Just because it is not published by Burger Games doesn't mean I haven't come up with new RPG material! Hornankattila is an adventure I wrote for Myrskyn Sankarit as a scenario for my introductory game sessions last year. Mike liked it so much he asked me to edit the content into the MS adventure module format (it is about a certain kind of parlance and way to lead the players on) and it will be published in Ropecon, along with the Age of Tempest -translation. I am blown away by the cover art. This is almost too gorgeous:


How cool is that? Despite having some misgivings about the game system, I love the Smoky Woods (is that how Sauhumetsä is called in Age of Tempest?) and yes, if I had to run a fantasy adventure for small children, it would happen here, whatever the rules. Since I also adore the Astraterra setting and my own roleplaying games are decidedly setting-centered, lets just agree that we are all fucking great at setting design. This is why my Miekkamies rewrite is stalling: there are unresolved issues with the setting. For me, setting is the game and rules are just a tool kit. If the rules are broken, it is a solvable problem. If the setting is broken, the game is dead.

For a moment, it seemed like I might have scheduling issues with Ropecon but those appear to be resolved for now. So, let's take a look at the programme. Remember, this year I am just a regular visitor, paying my way in just like everybody else. I really don't want to stand in that line though, so I have to think at what time I will show up on Friday. But, my picks of the Ropecon programme are...

Well, looks like I may well delay my arrival because I am not really interested in the guests of honor and nothing in the early Friday programming tickles me. But then...


20-21 The Gamemaster School - player power and application
At last, the long-running Gamemaster School covers something I am both interested in and don't know enough about. My current Praedor campaign rests heavily on politics and intrigue, so this might be just what the doctor ordered.

21-22  The Screwball Rules of History
I probably know most of this stuff but I am a sucker for historical comedy in all its forms. Including powerpoint-assisted stand-up. :)

22-23 What's Next for Myrrysmiehet & Ironspine
Well well, looks like the whole Finnish RPG authoring scene will be cramming into this one, either as presenters or as the audience. I am not an exception.


11-13 Age of Tempest: Roleplaying For Kids and Beginners
Well duh! Of course I'm there!

13.30-15 Astraterra - Roleplaying Game For the Whole Family
Of course I am there. But why the hell is this on top of the "Here Be Dragons" -launch presentation?

14-16 Age of Tempest: The Global Conquest Begins
What the fuck is going on here? Did the Programme Team get their heads chopped off or did they just leave them somewhere by accident? Why the fuck do these presentations coincide?

Christ on a bicycle, Programme Team! The Ropecon mission statement is simple enough: helping to promote this hobby. You have put three events that have pretty much the same target audience (press included) into more or less the same time slot. This is a major fuck up. If I was one of the parties launching a game here, I would consider this an unforgivable fuck-up and you would have earned my undying enmity and hatred. For now, I am just bloody annoyed. It will pass. But by the Beard of Artante, this is worse than you forgetting the event I was supposed to partake in (the reason I am now a paying customer). That event can be done next year but these events can't!!! 


16-18 RPG Design In Practise
Jukka Sorsa makes another brave attempt to explain how the design of table-top RPGs works. He knows his stuff, even if the last time he tried  explaining it didn't go so well. I'd like to be there but I might be in Keltsu trying to keep Mike, Miska and Matias away from electrical outlets, sharp objects and steep drops. Thank you, Programme Team!

19-20 Space Warfare
If I want someone to tell me about space warfare, that someone better be Antti Eronen. 

20.30-22.30 The Gamemaster School: Real and Tangible Power
Oh yes, a continuation of the previous piece. Very topical for me (the Verivartio session is on Monday)


10-12 Games for Kids
Hopefully also games for tired and cranky old men.

12-14 Lords of the Robin Hood RPG
If I can't make it to the previous one, I'll make it to this one.

And that's about it. I don't want to be around when Ropecon closes. It always feels like a part of me dies in the process. So I'm off, probably to Grilli Toro for some steak and then home to prepare for... Assembly! I am glad I didn't have to boycott them, although we are still waiting for the apology for their role in the IeSFgate.

Talk22-Jul-2014: Ignorance Would Be Bliss

News have been incredibly depressing lately and while Israel's invasion of Gaza still wins by all counts, the downing of a Malaysian passenger jet over East Ukraine still scores highly in fucked-uppedness, with bonuses for the probable guilty party being a bunch of blind-drunk morons wielding rocket-powered killer robots. Plus this. Guys, if you don't want the world to be russophobic, don't make threats involving World War Three! Now, I have been asked why I only look to western sources for information since the western powers (i.e. democracies and shit) are known to have manipulated the media from time to time. The short answer is that because I am old enough to remember the whole of the 80s. The Russian state-controlled media and their proxies have been spouting nothing but over-the-top bullshit and lies for as long as I can remember, which is over 35 years by now. It is far too late to ask me to believe them on anything and frankly, I find the whole notion insulting.

If the pro-Kremlin media announced today that the Sun will rise tomorrow morning, I would check the western sources on whether Earth was still rotating and if something had happened in Russia to impede that. The standards of journalism in the West (you know, democracies and shit) might not be that high right now but at least we have them. That is, both the standards, and the whole fucking concept of journalism. As a result, while large-scale media manipulation is possible, at least it takes some effort and since free press and political opposition is allowed, you can usually get a fairly good picture by cross-referencing different sources. In Russia, both journalism and political opposition have been banned and the draconian control measures even extend to private bloggers.

But really, after all the other shit that has gone down there over the past 12 months, like the suppression of civil liberties and violations basic human rights (anti-protest statutes or the anti-gay legislation, anyone?), is lying through your teeth about an accidental shooting perpetrated by drunken trigger-happy idiots really that surprising? It's just the Russian Bear shitting in the woods. And on you, if you happen to be Ukraine.  

Stop killing people you fucking

It is all very depressing. Great things have come out of Russia and not just in the distant past. Badass films (I really wonder if the industry that gave us Antikiller can survive the new culture morality laws), excellent video games (Metro!!! but ditto for the laws), stunning literature, beautiful music and great cuisine. They have gorgeous palaces, beautiful churches and stupendous natural wonders. When Eurocon 2015 in St. Petersburg was first announced, I was really eager to go. And why not? It's only a four-hour train ride from here.

Damn, what a difference a year can make.

Talk15-Jul-2014: Astraterra

A very good friend of mine just had a son (together with his girlfriend, obviously, but you know what I mean). Almost at the exact same moment, a very good colleague of mine sent me a PDF facsimile of his upcoming crowd-funded roleplaying game for children, Astraterra. It will be officially released at Ropecon, about a week and a half from now. Being Burger has some priviledges and stuff like this, getting sneak peaks of future products is one of them. Designing roleplaying games for children is almost of a fad right now and it is completely understandable. The most prolific Finnish RPG authors are having offspring of their own and being hobbyists and thus in it for the love, they'd like to introduce their offspring and by necessity their circle of friends into our wonderful hobby. There has certainly been a dearth of games deemed suitable for children, in both theme and complexity.

Unfortunately that dearth has persisted. I was a vocal supporter of the Myrskyn Sankarit crowdfunding drive but at some point the author changed his approach and message from a "roleplaying game for children" to a "roleplaying game for newbies". I don't know whether this really changed anything in the content but it did change the marketing message and with that, the goal and atmosphere of the whole project. Personally, I felt like the crowd-funding drive had failed or been derailed. Whatever its merits or flaws as game, the product delivered at the end was intentionally different from what had been promised.

This is why Burger Games only sells its goods after they've been finished.

So, why did I give such strong support to Astraterra? Well, it is still aimed, designed and marketed as a roleplaying game for children. It is also not an OSR-inspired rehash of the red-box D&D and in fact completely lacks any obvious nostalgia for the games of the author's youth. I've never seen a game world like this and that's saying something. Astraterra has been extensively playtested with real, live children for over two years and from what I've heard some of them have even survived. Besides, the author has enough offspring to invade East Ukraine and just as I poured my experiences as a GM into Stalker RPG, he has poured his parenting expertise into his well-blogged playtesting campaign and it makes a very convincing read. In short, I had faith in him.

So, here we go. What can this digital shadow of the finished game tell me?

Well, it looks gorgeous and I can't poke holes into the rules just by reading it, so on the first look the numbers work. It is very evocatively written, reminding me of the best of old-school Shadowr....

*Blue Screen of Death*

I want to play this thing.
I want to run this thing.

*Reboot into the Grumpy Old Man Mode*
*Error: Grumpy Mode not found*

Astraterra is a very well thought-out mixture of fantasy, science fiction, post-holocaust, epic space opera and steampunk. It is the first and only steampunk setting that I've found to be interesting in any way. While the default campaign deals with explorers, I can already see myself running an adventure that is a mixture of Tales of the Gold Monkey and Firefly, with a merry band of adventuring rogues taking their curiosity, bravery and greed into the far places beyond the reach of the ancient Waygates (a plot device introduced to eliminate the need for long transitions apparently detested by young players). But frankly, if I had a spaceship with golden sails capable of traveling between continent-sized floating islands, I'd sail the hell out of the damn thing!

Astraterra is a funny world and a cutesy setting. But if you look past the play of sunlight on the waves with an adult mind you suddenly realize that the waters below run deep, dark and cold. You know how the best kids' movies have multiple layers to them so that audiences of all ages can find something meaningful and entertaining? Miska has pulled that off in a roleplaying game setting and it is freaking awesome. I can't get enough of this dual nature of the setting and how the innocent, childish action-adventures stand on the shoulders of deep tragedy and doom. This thing really has the makings of a superb speculative fiction franchise.

Nothing in the world is certain and that goes double for the commercial success of roleplaying games. In all likelihood, Astraterra won't receive the attention and distribution it so richly deserves. Nevertheless, I consider this game a mighty feat and my crowdfunding support for it was money well spent. It might not be Stalker-level good, but nothing ever is.  

Talk14-Jul-2014: Respect Vector 

I'm back. Not that you ever noticed me being one in the first place but still... we went to my spouse's home turf in Kainuu and while the Pessimist Evening in Puolanka had a weather to match the topic, the skies cleared the very next day and we became crazy enough to go see ancient rock paintings, epic waterfalls, museums about Winter War and everything else you might expect to find from the hinterlands of Falkre... sorry, Kainuu. Honestly, the wilderness out there (Hossa Wilderness Park) is fucking AAA. The only thing missing were the necromancers. I am fairly sure they have trolls. Of course, the number of mosquitoes and horseflies was also epic but that's what the potion of insect-repellent labelled OFF is for.

However nice the place was, there are some things that can't be helped by scenery. I am very much out of shape and weigh about a metric ton (seriously, I am literally off-the-scale for our home scale). After a particularly heavy trudge through the epic woods, hills and crevasses I was in rough enough shape to have to call the Kajaani Central Hospital for some advice. I won't go into details but trust me, it wasn't pretty. It wasn't a postcard from Death, either, but a damn selfie! This summer, doctors have already forbade me from riding a bike, so I must do what I can. Today is day 0 of my second serious go at an Atkins Diet (low-carb). It actually worked the last time (30+ kilos lost in 8 months in 2003) and it took me years to regain it. Call it yoyo dieting if you wish, I consider it an acceptable exchange ratio so here we go again. This time my many physical ailments stop me from having such a heavy exercise regime but on the other hand I weigh even more, so even the walks are going to be more taxing.   

It is not really about fitness anymore. It is survival.

By the way, when Ropecon rolls in I should be in a full sugar crash mode. Maybe it's good I don't have any presentations of my own this year because the troubleshooters might end up having to dislodge my teeth from someone's throat with a crowbar, at least if my Spouse is to be believed. Personally, I don't believe I could ever be that grumpy and ill-tempered.  

Well, I lived, at least that time. I kinda want to go into the wilds again. If I succeed in shedding some significant weight by the next summer, I am going to do it, including the nightmarish climb to the rock paintings.  And if I don't, well, pity the pall-bearers. During my stay up north also concluded the second proofreading round for The Hollow Pilgrim. The ball is now firmly in the publishers' court and I'll let you know if there are any changes. The Dance of Snakes is taking shape as well, thank you very much for asking. I still hope for a publisher to spring up but if all else fails, it is Burger Games. You know, selling my wares through Payhip has the added benefit of being overseas trade and hence I don't have to worry about VAT. Having 24% VAT on ebooks vs. 10% on physical books is insane. Besides, the digital files can't be stopped and fucked over by the Customs Department.

On the way back we stopped at Jyväskylä for a couple of nights to attend Finncon, the leading speculative fiction fandom convention in Finland with Elizabeth Bear, Jukka Halme, some surfer dude and Hannu Rajaniemi as the guests of honour. I am a big fan of Hannu Rajaniemi, an author best known for the Quantum Thief-series (QT, The Fractal Prince, The Causal Angel) and after listening to his superb guest of honor speech, I sat down with him in his kaffeeklatch (a small and informal discussion circle of about 10 people plus the author) and tried not to make a complete fool out of myself. Then, towards the end of the period, he agreed to sign the books we'd brought us and he asked for my name. I told him. He looked up and said, and I quote: "I am honored to meet you", shaking my hand.

I have the deepest respect for Hannu Rajaniemi but I never expected him to respect me back. He is an old roleplayer (cool and creative people usually are) and a big fan of Praedor RPG. Why Oh why didn't I bring any promotional copies of Stalker RPG with me this time? I'll better bring some along to Worldcon, just in case.       

Last year, after witnessing the debacle that was the Eurocon in Kiev, I promised I'd never criticize the managing of Finncon anymore. This year it was an easy promise to keep. Things went off smoothly from start to finish and while I wasn't a fan of the location, the guests were excellent and did a great job in patching up the otherwise "usual" programme palette. Well done, Finncon organizers. The two pieces that really stood out for me were "On Writing" and Rajaniemi's GoH speech (the kaffeeklatch was great as well). I have also heard a lot of good things about the Fact and Fiction panel and getting to hear about the scifi-scene and prominent authors in the Russian sphere was quite interesting and topical for me.  

So, that's the first half of my July. Now for the second half...

Damn, I am still giddy about Hannu Rajaniemi being a fan of my game! :)

Talk03-Jul-2014: Roma Victor!

Well, that was quick!

Faced with the Perfect Shitstorm of player feedback, boycotts and negative media attention, International e-Sport Federation drew the startling conclusion that their tournament rules might be asinine and changed them. The new rules are the same as in chess tournaments and having an all-female series will annoy some but I'll live with it. It'll make it easier for women to enter e-sports (as illustrated by a few scandals of pro-gaming sexism and this whole debacle) and alleviates problems in some asshole countries that can't fit men and women into the same picture without their heads exploding. In an ideal world we wouldn't need it but this world still needs a bit of tinkering.     

In short, this is what the IeSF rules ought to have said from the beginning and my mole in SEUL assures me that they are effective immediately also for Assembly. This counts as "IeSF coming to their senses" as outlined in my previous blog entry, so my boycott of Assembly is hereby lifted. It lasted for less than 24 hours. Well done, media and Internet, well done.

In hindsight, IeSF handled the PR crisis fairly well, if you discount the fact that it should have never happened in the first place. The prompt and decisive rule change has nipped the thing in a bud and I don't think there will be any more problems for them. The Assembly organizers have a shakier track record on that and still insist on having done nothing wrong. Sigh. This is not a deal-breaker by any means and my boycott remains lifted. However, I do agree with those who think that Assembly should issue an apology for its role in this mess.

Talk02-Jul-2014: WTF, Assembly?

Link 1 (FI), Link 2 (EN) and Link 3 (EN)

In short, many of the major e-sports tournaments at Assembly are male-only because of some asinine rules from IeSF (International e-Sports Federation). They have given an even more asinine explanation that this would somehow help them present e-sports as "serious sports". Maybe it would have in the 1930s or in the fucking Saudi-Arabia! Here in the Nordics that shit won't fly. Of course, the real tragedy for me is not that some organization is being an asshole. It is that the Assembly didn't give them the boot as soon as they learned about the rules. Big boot. Right between the cheeks. With enough momentum to make them clear the parking lot before they land.

I really like Assembly and have been waiting it eagerly since my first employer-sponsored visit there in 2004. But I simply can't condone them, or anyone, supporting asshattery of this magnitude. Unfortunately, my only avenue of protest is to call for a boycott of Assembly 2014 until they either force IeSF to come to their senses, kick them out of the event or come up with one hell of a conciliatory gesture. I do this with heavy heart but although I am a lazy self-centred slob, some things in life are non-negotiable. Hopefully IeSF won't be there next year. Hell, I hope IeSF won't be anywhere this time next year after that article in Forbes. If I were a sponsor, I'd run.

At least I can now get a bit of rest between Ropecon and Worldcon. 

Talk23-Jun-2014: Back in HAX

I am feeling cyberpunkish tonight, which in my case means a mind trip to Terminal Complex, the artificial city at the center of my long-drawn-out iOS game project HAX. The game will feature a very small slice of the whole setting, so the rest is mine to toy with. The setting for HAX was my inspiration for the Blue Corps in Rovers and I even ended up calling the corporate government of Earth "Cartel" in both settings. However, they are not immediately compatible. In HAX, cyberpunk and transhumanity are much more strongly at the center of things.

In HAX, the Cartel forces its off-world pioneers undergo various degrees of cyborgization, while related and extrapolative technologies remain prohibited on Earth to protect social order and safeguard corporate supremacy. Transhumans on Earth are outlaws (apart from Cartel's own licensed specialists; think of the Deus Ex: Human Revolution bosses and corporate leaders and you get the picture). However, the Cartel has been unable to enforce its policies on the Free Sectors and it cannot control the exchange of information and technology between the Free Sectors and the Singularity.

Terminal Complex is a vast transhumanist ghetto and the cornerstone of clandestine transhuman subcultures everywhere. Even the corporations operate by different rules around them, well aware that the genie cannot be put back into the bottle. Medical advances due to bionics and genetic engineering are impossible to ignore, while the growing gap between legal and illegal technology has resulted in a thriving black market for clandestine implants, brainware, gene hacks, ghost morphs and things yet to be named. Intercorporate rivalry over the best black-tek innovations inflames politics all the way up to the Cartel Board of Directors. 

What very few people realize is that transhuman technology is just the tip of the iceberg. This is an age of great scientific progress, technological innovation and political suppression. Those in the know talk of "Q-World", where progress is being made on things like teleportation, sub-atomic engineering, force field manipulation and mind control. The corporate collective sits on a growing pile of disruptive technologies, suppressing the hell out of them because they are scared shitless by their societal effect projections. When something from the Q-World slips through the cracks of secrecy and security and makes its way onto the streets, it might just as well be magic for the N-World.

Now that we are on the subject of worlds, "N-World" is the unaugmented physical reality. Very few people live or experience it fully anymore; to do so usually requires an extreme lifestyle choice that eschews high technology in general and virtual information technology in particular. Sometimes called the Normal World by corporates or Meatspace by those involved in virtual technologies and infomorphs, N-World is where the biological anchors of everybody but pure infomorphs exist and must be maintained. The declining relevance of N-World is a new phenomenon. It has never happened before and nobody knows where it might lead.

M-World is where most people consider themselves to be in. It is a combination of the physical reality with heavy virtual reality augmentations. Depending what feeds you are subscribed to, it allows you to choose your memetic reality to a large extent. While some people argue that there can be only one truth and M-World claims of alternate realities are just a spin, in practice the information reality of an individual becomes his perceived absolute reality and M-World allows corporations, collectives and even ideologies to impose their chosen inforeality on subscribed members.

To best describe the M-World experience to an early 21st century reader, imagine your brain had all the properties of a smart-phone and were running constant social media and location-based services via your eyes, or "cognitive perception sphere", automatically superimposing both informative and recreational graphics on your perceived reality. This includes ad banners, mood pieces, subliminal messaging and so on. This is not transhumanist technology but how the average person in the global corporate society lives, works, socializes and plays. The CIN-implant (Communication, Information and Numistics) is also your proof of identity and passport in the corporate era. Newbown (in-utero, surrogate or in-vitro) babies born to any civilized societies receive one at birth. It can be tinkered with, upgraded and hacked just like any piece of smartware. Ghost Runners in HAX use it to upload their minds into neuralnet processors to access ubiquitous computer networks, or the Link, directly.

V-World or V-Space is a full-sensory virtual reality experience with all the advantages and limitations in entails. It may or may not involve information from the N-world. For example, plugging your CIN into a sports vehicle can transport you into a state where you are floating above the road with all the controls and displays arrayed around you. The cockpit is a V-Space, while the road you'll be driving down is N- or M-World, since you must be able to react to physical obstacles and unforeseen events the simulation might not know how to handle. Pure V-World experiences are frequently used in games, entertainment and cybersex, or when dealing with abstract or highly specialized systems where the absolute exclusion of non-relevant items is an advantage. A virtual workplace is a perfect example of this: instead of a shared office-space, employees slip into the V-World prepared by their employer from the comfort of their own homes. However, while V-World experiences can involve all senses, body language and pheromone communication remain absent or poorly simulated.

The Link used to refer just to the omnipresent mess of overlapping networks and datafeeds the M-World and V-World draw upon. It also encompasses the deeper systems and infrastructure that make the day-to-day functions of Terminal Complex possible. Ghost runners changed the very definition of Link. Uploads through neural network decks made it possible for them to experience it directly, intercepting data and even seizing temporary control of it. In effect, this put them into position where they could control the M- and V-World experiences of millions, or manipulate the workings of Terminal Complex itself to their advantage. Ghost Running is a very Gibsonian way to hack. Watch Dogs might portray the exploits of a very capable M- or V-World hacker, but a Ghost Runner wouldn't be running around with a gun since his perceived reality would be the system structure of whatever deep infrastructure network he might be invading.          

I've always detested the idea of cyberpunk adventurers running around in a populated cityscape wielding big guns like freelancing urban commandos. Big Guns do exist in Terminal Complex but most security troopers and corporate enforcers would shoot on sight at random civilians openly carrying them. Instead, the cyberpunks in TC would have to rely heavily on subdermal weapons, easily concealed guns and high-tech melee weapons masked as everyday items. We would finally get some use for those finger-tip weighed monowhips that every CP2020 player skipped in favor of a bigger gun.

There. I hope this cyberpunkish feeling will ease up with a little venting of inspiration. My test readers are coming up with proofreader feedback on The Hollow Pilgrim and I've waited for about as long as I am going to for my publisher to send me some. Time to start fixing the script.

Compared to the modest Highway Wall watchtower, the tower to the north was a menacing sight. Big, tall and bristling with sensors, it was the south end of an elaborate defense chain that cut right across the heart of Toulouse. Originally, the entire Zone was supposed to have been surrounded like this but both political and financial capital had run out right about where the tower now stood. Going around the Void Bubble basically meant running towards the northern tower across an open space. On the other hand, there was a low building behind the anomaly, perhaps a local fire and rescue station. The big garage doors had been smashed open, as if the firemen had driven their trucks right through them.

- The Hollow Pilgrim

Talk19-Jun-2014: This Is Finland!

We don't need no stinking summer! The only thing the Sun is good for is blinding me when I'm driving! Rain is the real deals, clearing particles from the air and all. Hell, barbequing outside only feeds the mosquitoes! Bring back the cold that freezes the body! Bring the perpetual darkness that freezes the soul! ...so, yeah, not much of a Midsummer, is it? Although the last winter wasn't that wintery either. For the record, it may end up being colder on Midsummer's Day than it was on Christmas Eve. Maybe we are being punished for the spring, which was one of the warmest and nicest on record.

My business is slow and compared to the last year's boom, it is downright lousy. My old projects are winding down for the summer (actually, they would probably describe it as winding up for the events in August and September ) and all my major new prospects are start-ups that are basically waiting for funding. Basically, there is nothing guaranteed lined up for the fall and staring into this void means the void is also staring into me. Even with game industry's lousy record of job security, the most difficult thing about being a freelancer is the uncertainty and I am really feeling it this year. So, wink, win, nudge, nudge and all that. I've actually toyed with the idea of returning to salaried work, assuming someone my age can still get a job in this economy. Right now there are contractual obligations preventing me from doing that but if the current state of affairs continues into the fall it is a different story.

Meanwhile, I write. I have some hand problems and doctors forbade biking but I'll be dead before I give up on writing stuff. After a brief and unsuccessful stab at youth fiction, I went full pulp on my Praedor novel Käärmeiden Tanssi. The lead protagonist is still a preteen girl (she'll age a year or so over the course of the story) but the world around her will now be the Praedor setting with no holds barred. The change of genre will also involve some stylistic changes, which is probably for the better. Did you know that Petri actually drew a spot of Praedor youth fantasy for the ill-fated Jysäys -magazine back in the day? I hope he gets to conclude that story some day. I can't remember the name of his protagonist but I do remember the name of her pet Nameless. She called it Vola and it was a dog-like creature that showed gratitude and affection after being rescued from a pit. If it learns to recognize its name, it won't be a Nameless anymore, right? That spark of self-awareness might unlock some pretty interesting things.    

My own story is still stuck in the intro phase, setting the stage for events and people to come. This is not my favorite part of the writing because it feels like I am wading through mud when all I really want to do is press pedal to the metal and go adventuring! However, the over-arcing storyline needs to get started or else we won't have an intact arc and I am writing cheap entertainment, not standards-challenging avant-garde. By the way, the publisher is still sitting on The Hollow Pilgrim script. Looks like my own test-readers-turned-editors will get their stuff together before they do, so I might end up sending them another script soonish. Ideally, the next script version would incorporate the corrections from both their editors and mine but we'll see. 

Then, to the current RPG business.

Miska Fredman of Heimot-fame has launched a crowd-funding campaign for his upcoming Finnish-language children's RPG Astraterra and I really want everybody to fund the shit out of it. This is not the first child-friendly or "beginner's RPG" released in recent years but I really don't want to go into the issues with that. Here, read my review from last summer if you don't know what I mean. In any case, Astraterra is a very different beast. Rather than having been thrown together after a crowd-funding drive accidentally succeeded, this thing has been in the works for years and has been extensively playtested with children. The development blog has been a blast to read and I know for a fact that the author can crunch his numbers. I expect simple, yet competently developed rules that are a tried and tested fit for their target audience.


However, my interest in Astraterra goes way beyond having just another excellent Finnish roleplaying game. My RPGs are Old Skool with steep learning curves and for all its merits, Myrskyn Sankarit/Age of Tempest is yet another pseudomedieval high-fantasy setting with Tolkienesque look & feel (I also see it as an offshoot of the OSR craze but apparently this is not a popular viewpoint). There is nothing wrong with any of that but compared to them, Astraterra is trying to do something unique, yet easily approachable, mixing genres in a way that is both fresh to adults and relatable to its target audience.

Personally, I think we are looking at the genesis of a uniquely Finnish omnimedia franchise that would be a perfect fit for videogames, animated adventures, family-friendly adventure fiction and comic books, clothing lines sold as AT explorer gear etc. Without having actually seen the finished product, I think that Astraterra and everything it encompasses is a brilliant idea that should attract interest in circles way outside the Finnish RPG scene. Even its name, based on Latin, is omninational and thus applicable everywhere! How cool is that? Knowingly or sub-consciously, Miska has been thinking big when he thought this up. Real big. I want to see it happen and I want him to get his socks blown off by his well-deserved success.

Granted, even I don't believe Astraterra could become as big a franchise as Angry Birds (you can expect a review of AB: Epic pretty soon, btw). But it has the potential to become commercially, if not artistically, as big as The Moomin. While you chew on that, go support the crowd-funding drive. Roleplaying games are a niche of a niche and this will just scratch the surface of the underlying potential. However, as franchise sourcebooks and style-guides go, a well-made RPG is hard to beat. I should know. :) 

Myrskyn Sankarit is also having a crowd-funding drive for the English translation as Age of Tempest.   


Talk09-Jun-2014: Käärmeiden Tanssi

Käärmeiden Tanssi (eng. The Dance of Serpents) is a Finnish-language novel I've been writing since concluding The Hollow Pilgrim. Although I am already 15 sheets (or 40000 characters) into it, it hasn't really taken off yet. On the other hand, what the hell am I expecting it to do? The Stalker novel only moved forward because I finally kicked it down the road and I doubt Käärmeiden Tanssi will write itself either. For some reason and even after all these books, I am still expecting "authorship" to be some kind of a divinely inspired trance that would just make books happen. That leaves me procrastinating and waiting for the angels of heaven to cast their spell. 

It never happens, of course, so eventually the deadlines of my publishing contracts force me to pull my head out of my ass and do the bloody thing myself. With Käärmeiden Tanssi I am trying to skip the waiting part and just get on the with bloody thing, taking all the knocks it entails.

Käärmeiden Tanssi is very different from my previous Praedor novel, Vanha Koira. This time the protagonist is Nijah, an adolescent girl of noble birth who, after an arranged marriage turns murderous, renounces her name and blood to become a thief and a spy in the city-state of Galth (the birthplace of Ferron, btw). First a servant and then a champion to Manos, a former praedor (and a player-character from LootEm) and now a powerful merchant, she becomes embroiled in a conspiracy stretching all the way from the throne of Galth to the distant ruins of Borvaria. Although some people are going to think that I drew this idea from Game of Thrones, I'd like to point out that Manos was a midget already in 2001, way before it was cool, and I have a license to use him from the original player. So, will Vanha Koira make an appearance in Käärmeiden Tanssi? We'll have to wait and see.

For the first time ever I am writing a novel without a pre-existing publishing contract for it. I don't know yet how I am going to publish it but self-publishing via Burger Games is certainly an option.

By the way, the Finnish-language Stalker - Tieteisroolipeli is now also available as a PDF. So far I have sold just one. Woohoo!

Talk06-Jun-2014: Wolfenstein WTF

Wolfenstein is a shooter franchise where the protagonist, a creatively named WW2 commando B.J. Blazkowicz (no, I am not kidding) shoots Nazis in the face. Well, Nazis and monsters created by Nazi superscience. Wolfenstein games have paper-thin plots, tongue-in-cheek themes and rely heavily on really campy stereotypes. Wolfenstein 3D is generally considered to be the granddaddy of all first-person-shooters. Later releases have been remarkable only in their mediocrity but really, what could you possibly build on such a flimsy backstory and moronic theme?

What indeed?

I am looking at an in-game cutscene and have tears in my eyes. I listen to the conversations between civilians and grind my teeth in genuine anger. I watch a cutscene of two consenting adults having sex and all I can think of is hoping they will eventually have a happy future together. And I really hate the Nazis. I hate them so much I want to bash their smug, arrogant post-victory faces in with a brick! Watching the brutal stealth takedowns, my only regret is that I can't hurt them more when I kill them.
What happened? 

This is a Wolfenstein game!!

What the *fuck* just happened?!! 

I am playing Wolfenstein: The New Order. So far, I have no complaints whatsoever (apart from climbing down ladders). I may like open-world games more as a genre but WTNO is pretty much the perfect semi-linear first-person shooter. On top of that, the atmosphere and drama Machinegames have managed to squeeze out of this lemon of an intellectual property is nothing short of a miracle. If I hadn't seen this with my own eyes, I wouldn't have believed it. I am currently heading towards the final mission (I think). Even if the devs will have totally screwed up the ending, I am still going to rate this game +3. If the ending is on par with the rest of it, we are looking at +4. If I am blown away by the ending, +5 is in order.

So, where to start? The linchpin of any FPS is obviously action and combat. Fail at that and nothing else matters. WTNO obviously excels in this. Blazkowicz moves fast, turns quickly, doesn't get hung up on the ambitious-looking level geometry and there are quite a few things can be climbed over or broken to gain access to somewhere. If I have to fault the gameplay for something, the logic of climbing down ladders leaves something to be desired. I usually end up just jumping down and taking the resulting damage. This is the kind of game where you can run in rings around the enemy, circle-strafing the shit out of them.

To balance it out, enemies come in multiple tiers of hardness and some of them are largely immune to small caliber weapons. To again kick the shit out of that balance, you can wield two pieces of almost any weapon and a scene where I had pot-helmeted nazis charging at me from a narrow tunnel and I was wielding two automatic shotguns loaded with shrapnel ammo was borderline erotic. That said, the game supports stealth to an unusual degree and cutting some Nazi throats is cathartic.

Accomplishing feats of killing and stealth unlock bonus features called "perks". They are like achievements except they sometimes affect gameplay in a big way, like unlocking secondary attack options for weapons. There is a separate button for throwing grenades (a must have for all dedicated shooters, believe me) and you can use all sorts of stuff and lean around corners to take sneak peeks at patrolling guards. I don't need any more feature complexity from a straight-up shooter than that and WTNO nails it beautifully.

Now, the one thing that makes almost any modern shooter suck is regenerating health. Since we have already established that WTNO does not suck, it must do things differently. If you are hurt and you lose health, it will regenerate to the next 10 over time. You can regain more health by finding food and medpacks. You can also overcharge your health, making it shoot past the max cap and then steadily diminish back towards that cap. This is a great way to tank up your health if you know you are headed for trouble. You can also find certain collectibles which will increase your health cap by 10. I started with a cap of 100, right now my cap is 150.

Then there is armor, rated from 0 to 100. It works just like in Doom, reducing incoming damage and being reduced in the process. You can patch it up by finding stuff to bolt onto it, ranging from pieces of robotic plate mail to ballistic vests. Besides health packs and armor, you can also collect gold, music recordings, enigma codes and so on. I consider myself an explorer but I still haven't found nearly everything. And the Enigma codes seem to be used in a sort of a mini-game to unlock something. I'll get back to you when I know what it does.

In this day and age of mediocre shooters, getting the action mechanics just right is a major feat by itself. But what really floors me are the story, the characters, the atmosphere and the level design. To make the long story short, the grizzled-white-male protagonist with a silly name has actual depth in WTNO and being the stereotype (hell, he is the very origin of that stereotype) almost feels like a punchline to a joke that almost every other action game developer out there has somehow missed. The NPCs are deeper than I am really comfortable with (I have real-life friends who are less three-dimensional) and I have never seen a better love interest in a videogame. All these people are adults living as outcasts in a dystopian world and they behave as such.

The pacing is good, which by today's standards means it is off the charts. The gameplay designers have perfectly understood the need for peace and quiet every once in a while. Occasionally, the haunted atmosphere in this game rivals even that of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. trilogy and this is a high praise from me. Levels are designed as wide-pipes, meaning that there is a set beginning and an end but multiple alternate routes and explorable nooks and crannies in between. It reminds me of the original F.E.A.R. or perhaps even Quake 2. This is a very good (and sorely missed) thing and a giant leap forward (backwards?) compared to modern shooters. I am glad that I have to consult a map every once in a while and even when the route is linear, it is usually well-designed enough not to feel like it.

Finally, the narrative designer is a genius.You, legendary BJ Blazkowicz, have failed. The Nazis won and Blazkowicz regains his senses in a Polish asylum in 1960, fifteen years later. He and a bunch of other relics of the resistance are trying to rekindle the Second World War in a dystopian future where the oppressed masses have more or less accepted the status quo of Nazi fuckery. The future world is based on the actual designs Hitler and Speer had for the Greater Germania. It has been made into "scifi" or "dieselpunk" by assuming that all the proposed "Wünderwaffe" actually worked and extrapolating those concepts into robotics, space travel and so on. Iron Sky aficionados will feel right at home here. What I found particularly fascinating was how the narrative designer had done his homework regarding the ordinary society.

The whole world lives like Germans did in c.a. 1938. Racial segregation is a fact of life, invalids and the feeble-minded are purged from the society as degenerates, people spy upon their neighbors and rat them out to the civil office for suspected homosexuality and other thought-crimes. On the other hand, there have been great advances in technology and medicine. If you have the right racial characteristics, your standard of living is quite high and I can see why some parts of the population support the system. You hear bits and pieces of conversations and come across all sorts of documents and collectible notes that convey a sense of a living, breathing world that has already moved on. Stuck in his personal war against the Nazis, Blazkowicz comes across as something of a throwback, a Don Quijote charging headlong at the windmills while the world at large might actually prefer the uncomfortable peace to the horrors of war.

How an Earth did this translate into this?

Well, I am glad that it did. Wolfenstein: The New Order is a masterpiece. It also proves that when old fogeys say that games used to be much better in their youth, there might be more than nostalgia to this, at least as far as First-Person-Shooters are concerned. WTNO is Old School but it mops the floor with its New School rivals. Besides, Nazis really make better enemies than zombies. Zombies can't help being what they are but Nazis have chosen to be assholes. And I've chosen to stab them in the back of the head after drowning them in their own piss.

Final rating is +4

The ending didn't disappoint me but it didn't blow me away either. I've seen worse. Much, much worse.

Talk03-Jun-2014: Praedor PDF!!!

Looks like we'll be starting the summer of 2014 off with a bang! I finished my stalker novel and sent the script to the publisher (their editor will throw it back at me dipped in red dye, of course) and my problems with getting Paypal payments through the Payhip webstore have been fixed. So here you go, PRAEDOR - Roolipeli Jaconian Seikkailijoista as a PDF! Works like a charm on a tablet, even if the layout hasn't been quite optimized (unlike in Rovers). I have always thought of myself as a traditionalist and a luddite but I have stopped using paper rulebooks when running my Praedor campaign. The rulebook on my iPad Mini is easier to handle, faster to browse and the search function finds anything I need in seconds. Or that's how it goes with Acrobat Reader, at least.

By the way, the PDF file is DRM free. Anything a sane person would consider fair use is hereby allowed. Just remember that any sales royalties are split between myself and Petri Hiltunen. Both of us can use the money and your appreciation boosts our inspiration to cough up more Praedor stuff. I am writing a new Praedor-novel, Käärmeportti. And as soon as Petri releases the next Praedor graphic novel, the long-planned Praedor supplement will be back on the table.

Meanwhile, you might consider supporting Mike's quest to conquer the world by backing Age of Tempest at Indiegogo. He has set the bar at a quite reasonable 5K and this English-language version of Myrskyn Sankarit could be yours for just 25 euros. I did support the release of the Finnish version but have mixed feelings about doing a second round. Still, releasing a Finnish RPG internationally is a worthy goal, I suppose. I just wish the game was a bit better. You can check out my review of Myrskyn Sankarit here. As you can see it's a mixed bag. A lot to like and a lot to dislike. Hopefully Miska gets Astraterra out of the printers soon. His playtesting reports have been a joy to read.

My interest in videogames is slowly coming back. Now that I have warmed up with Sniper Elite II, I have to make a choice between the new Wolfenstein (said to be the best shooter in ages and frankly, despite common claims to the contrary, there are very few single-player focused FPS's out there) and Dishonored. The latter might prove a useful inspiration for my new Praedor novel but I kind of feel like kicking some Nazi ass right now.

Must be the current events.